Josh Kotelnicki is the assistant football head coach and defensive coordinator for linebackers at the University of North Dakota. Josh returned to his alma mater in 2008 as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach. In 2012, Kotelnicki, saw his unit combine for half of the team’s 20 sacks. Josh was good enough to sit down with Winthrop’s managing editor, Ryan Matthews, to discuss mentoring student-athletes, technology that improves quality of life, and the success he and UND have had on the field.
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Listen to the interview:
What is the most critical characteristic or leadership quality required in your position?
I have a bit of a dual role as the coordinator, and also the assistant coach here at UND. At the top, is an understanding that in our profession, it’s people, people, people. That’s my rule number one. Whether it’s players, administration, fellow assistant coaches, fans, alumni, recruits. We have a lot of nice facilities here at the University of North Dakota, but a lot of other schools do too. People make or break the experience that a student athlete is going to have at a school. Coaches that don’t have that philosophy, or don’t have that as part of their core usually, in my experience, don’t make it.
If you’re in football just because you’re a football junkie and that’s all you care about—at the college level anyways—that doesn’t get you very far because a lot of these kids are developing young men. They have a lot of problems that 18, 19, 20-year-old kids have. They need somebody to talk to, and that’s one of your hats that you wear. You wear the hat of a mentor or a father figure for a little bit for some of these kids.
Maybe not in a formal, official, sit-down-and-have-a-chat way, but just more by example and how you live your life, and the way you go about your business. I found is usually the biggest way you can have an impact on the kids. So that would definitely be one of the ones at the top is a genuine care for, and appreciation of, the people in your organization.
What has surprised you most about working as a coach?
What surprised me the most is the older you get, the farther you—I don’t want to say the farther you move up the chain of command, but I guess the more responsibility you get, is how little football you actually do. That’s the thing that surprised me the most when I got into coaching 13 years ago. All my passion, all my focus was on the Xs and Os, the drills you do, and you should make sure you teach this technique, and the coverage you should play against this formation to stop this route.
The older I get, and the more I’m in the business, less and less of my time is devoted to those things, and more time is spent on thinking about and reading about and studying and putting thought into how you develop a successful organization. As well as some of the things I mentioned in my previous answer. A lot of our time is spent on player development. Which includes obviously their personal development, their academic development, and then the third part is their football development. But that’s only one of the three. The older I get, the most surprising thing is that when I look at my daily schedule, things I’ve done today, of the fifteen things on here, two were football. That’s the thing that surprises me the most.
How has the need for information and data evolved during the tenure at both your current position and in the span of your career?
Well that’s a pretty technical question for our profession. For us, the best way to answer is that it’s improved the lifestyle of a college football coach immensely because the speed at which video gets processed and uploaded and shared in 2013 is light years ahead of where it was when I got in the business.
When I got in the business in 2002, that’s back when they had these things called videotapes, which you might remember, Ryan. So we still shared film of opponents, or had to watch practice film of your own. Anything involving any type of film was done on videotape, and had to be loaded into a system, and copies had to be made from that. Now we click a couple of buttons, and we’ve shared the entire season with the opponent that we’re playing six weeks from now.
So for a coach’s lifestyle, so much of that early part of my career was spent dealing with video issues, and now it’s completely… it’s so much faster and a lot more efficient. And then the other part of that too, I would say is that with all the big movement there is now for online databases and online servers, that’s the way a lot of us are coaching with that, so again more efficiently when you can put things like your entire recruiting boards or your entire season practice scripts on something like Google Docs, as opposed to a Microsoft Excel spread-sheet that had to be emailed to somebody or printed out.
For us as college coaches, I have two young kids of my own, and so my family time is precious to me. The ability to work at home, and actually put the kids to bed, is priceless. So it’s pretty exciting. College football is kind of a unique intersection of a lot of different fields, and technology is one of them.
I would envision a time when video, with all the different video angles that you have, you would be able to watch the wide shot that you guys see on TV. We’ll be able to watch the wide shot in our film room with our players, we’ll be able to zoom in closer, almost to the man, ground level, and rotate that view 360 degrees, and be able to show a player from multiple angles, this is what you did wrong, or this is how you mis-stepped. So I don’t think that stuff’s too far away. It’s fascinating.
Who are some other coaches or leaders today that inform your coaching style?
I think like most coaches—high school coaches, NFL coaches, college coaches—got into coaching in the first place because they had a great experience with a coach at some point themselves. I grew up in a small town, Litchfield, Minnesota, and was very blessed from a young age to have a lot of good positive coaches in my life. From sports all the way up through high school, all the sports I played.
I did play football here at the University of North Dakota, and played for a guy named Dale Lennon, and coach Lennon was a fantastic role model, and an example of how a professional college coach should conduct himself. I enjoy reading about, Nick Saban obviously, I think, most of us college coaches, just like successful business professionals, we are attracted, or we want to learn about, or we want to steal as many good ideas as we can from people who are successful in our industry.
It’s guys like Nick Saban who have won three of the last four national championships—obviously from an organizational standpoint—they’re doing some fantastic things there that give them a competitive edge. So I always joke with these young coaches now, there’s never been a better time to be a college football coach. If you want to know how Nick Saban runs his program, YouTube it.
There’s a ton of material that you can get lot of information from just by watching. So I really enjoy reading anything I can get my hands on from Nick Saban. I’m a big fan of Urban Meyer. I really admire the way he coaches, and the family values that he preaches. And I’m a big fan of military history. I enjoy reading about special operations, Navy Seals, Green Berets, all that type of, you know, the elite-level commandos, how they train those guys to me is pretty interesting, and I’ve also got quite a library of business organizational leadership books. I’m a big fan of Patrick Lencioni. Five Dysfunctions of a Team is one of the most popular books out there for business professionals, and certainly I enjoy reading all of his stuff.
What are some success stories for your program and for yourself professionally?
There are a lot of humble football coaches out there. I hate answering questions about myself. I really do. I think we’ve done a great job here. When I got here in 2008, back to UND, I had come from a school called Kansas State, which has a graduate system there, head coach there was a guy by the name of Ron Prince. I came back to UND in 2008 just as we were transitioning from Division II to Division I. We had been a very good Division II team for many, many years. Won national championship, played multiple national championship games.
We made the jump up to division one FCS. Chris Mussman, our current head coach is the guy who hired me and brought me back. Everything we did here for five years, while I was the special teams coordinator here, was based on how we did things at Kansas State, and during Ron Prince’s tenure as the head coach at Kansas State for three years, they were second in the country in non-offensive touchdowns, basically, special teams touchdowns, and so everything we did here at UND special teams was copied and pasted from Kansas State.
So we’ve had a fair amount of success here in the last five years in special teams, we’ve led the nation in field goals in two of the last five years. That’s at all levels, not just FCS, as well as at a slew of first-place rankings in the conference for kick-off returns, punt returns, and a number of All-Americans and, more importantly, Academic All-Americans.
In my current role now, I just got promoted last February to defensive coordinator. And I’ve been a defensive coordinator before, so that’s definitely an honor, at your alma mater to have that type of responsibility. So we’re looking forward to getting our defense back to the top of the conference where it has been historically, and that’s a challenge. We’ve been preparing for the last five months.